What Football Taught Me About PhD Economics

MRBethel_0190

(Disclaimer: Most of what I say below, Pete Boettke already said better. A lot of the ideas come from things he has written or said. Of course, any mistakes or dumb ideas are all mine.)

One of the great honors of my life was being able to play college football. It left me with a bad back ("and probably some brain damage," yells the crowd), but I wouldn't trade those years for anything. I continue to use the life lessons I learned on the field every day of my life.

On my first day of college football, my defensive line coach, who is as good of a coach and man as I've ever met, said "forget everything you knew about playing D-Line. That was good in high school. Congrats. It got you here. I will teach you how to play college football."

And he went on to teach me more than I could have imagined. I'd like to think he turned me into an okay college football player. Without his advice and training, I would have been crap. He knew what he was saying.

The game is completely different at the college vs. the high school level. If you come into the college level thinking it is still high school, you will get crushed. It's not only a higher level, but a different game. What works in high school does not work in college, so players are better off forgetting what they learned. (Of course, if you are a true FREAK, which I was not, you can do whatever you want.)

That doesn't mean that I truly forgot everything. That's impossible. But as much as possible, I needed to clear my head of what I thought a D-Lineman should do. I had to go back to stage one and learn how to take a single step. Over, and over, and over again. Step. Step. Step.

We spent hours just working on our first step. An outsider watching might say, "why would you have players doing the same drill 1000 times? Doesn't everyone know how to step after being a baby? That's not how football is played. You should play real football."

People who say that don't know the sport.

My first year in a PhD has brought me back to Day 1 of football camp, August 2008. I've had to relearn it all. I never can (nor want to) forget my understanding of economics that I discovered through reading people like Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, or Murray Rothbard. But I'm now playing a different game now. I signed up to play a new sport, not blog or pop economics, but professional academic economics.

To play that sport, I needed to go back to stage one and learn my first step. Day one micro involved basic producer theory, but with advanced notation. Day one macro involved defining equilibrium "concepts." That might seem basic.  It is. But it's a new game.

The way academics talk about producer theory or equilibrium is not the way undergrad courses or blogs talk about these concepts. Demand isn't a curve, but a vector. It doesn't slope downwards, but the matrix of partial derivatives with respect to price is negative semi-definite. Equilibrium isn't where two lines cross. It's a whole page of definitions.

Getting down those basics takes a long time. That's what first year (and more) is about. We spend the year learning basic academic economics. It's long. It's tedious. It's probably a waste of time. But ultimately, I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel and first year is definitely worth it. In the words of the scripture, this too shall pass.

Before my Austrian friends think I've completely crossed over to the dark side (I've already annoyed them too much), let me add two things.

First, I don't mean that players or students have to think what they are learning is the best way. What are the odds that all of your teachers are right on everything? Students and players should have questions about why they learn what they learn. But it takes a lot of arrogance (which I certainly have been guilty of) to come in and think you know how the game should be played on day one.

My advice to myself and others: be patient. Learn the game. After you have developed an understanding of the new game, make your ultimate decision on how it should be played. If you're right, you'll win games in football and publish articles in economics.

A second point I want to emphasize is that students ultimately must find their comparative advantage. When I started college football, I had to learn to play how everyone else played. That's just the nature of being 1 person learning in a group.

While the basic skills you learn help everyone, each player eventually needs to figure out how he best plays. For me in football, that was different from most people. I was 2 inches too short, 40 pounds too light, and 0.3 seconds too slow. I had to learn my unique style. My style wasn't right for everyone. It was right for me.

For me in economics, I don't know what my style is. Hopefully I will find it someday.

Most people will play traditional economics. That's fine. If you're interested in something non-traditional like Austrian economics, you have to adjust your play to that. You'll get crushed if you try to play like a pure theorists or econometricians. That's not your comparative advantage.

Take Pete Leeson. He is one of the most interesting young economists in the world. My guess: he would be a nobody if he tried to imitate what comes out of MIT. Instead, he works on what he loves and does it well. He is more successful and the profession is more interesting, because he doesn't imitate.

Grad school is about finding the area that I can contribute to. If I don't want to be a traditional football player, there is a huge difference between finding a niche (pass rushing, for example) and sitting on the bench all year. If I insist that my "economics" is right and no one else agrees, I'll have to enjoy sitting on the bench.

I came here to play. So I'll keep working on my steps. Hopefully, I'll get a few good hits in along the way, like the top picture 🙂